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Book Review & Giveaway: The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

Title: The Bell at Sealey Head

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Ace
Publication Date: September 2008
Trade Paperback: 288 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel.

How did I get this book: Review copy (from publisher)

Why did I read this book: I’ve read Ms. McKillip’s Riddle-Master books and highly enjoyed them, and so when I received a review copy of The Bell at Sealey Head in the mail, I was excited to give her newest book a read. Just look at the gorgeous cover! And the intriguing blurb…

Summary: (from amazon.com)
Sealey Head is a small town on the edge of the ocean, a sleepy place where everyone hears the ringing of a bell no one can see. On the outskirts of town is an impressive estate, Aislinn House, where the aged Lady Eglantyne lies dying, and where the doors sometimes open not to its own dusty rooms, but to the wild majesty of a castle full of knights and princesses…


Sealey Head is a mysterious oceanside town, where the strange and magical blend into the daily lives of its residents. For as long as the town has existed, every twilight at the exact point when day slips into night, a single, forlorn bell tolls. No one knows where or what the bell is or what it means, and though some speculate about its mysterious ring, many of the residents of Sealey Head simply accept the bell as part of their daily lives, barely even acknowledging it anymore.

One blustery evening after the toll of the bell, young inkeeper Judd Cauley finishes his daily chores and is ready to escape reality with his latest book when a visitor arrives at his inn’s doorstep. Mr. Ridley Dow, scholar of Landringham, introduces himself to Judd, and explains that he wants a room at the inn while he works on his latest and greatest scholarly project – the mystery of the bell at Sealey Head, and the magical forces surrounding it. Judd, a dreamer, romantic and lover of books, is instantly taken in with Ridley Dow’s confident manner and his belief in magic (not to mention the promises that Judd can read as many of Mr. Dow’s myriad books brought with him to Sealy Head).

On the other side of the small town, young merchant daughter Gwyneth Blair works diligently on her latest story about her favorite topic: the twilight bell’s origins. Pretty, intelligent and bookish, Gwyneth tries to shake the amorous attentions of titled farmer Raven Sproule, to little avail, thanks to the misplaced good intentions of her Aunt Phoebe, as well as the efforts of Gwyneth’s best friend, none other than Raven’s sister, Miss Daria Sproule. The very same afternoon that Mr. Ridley Dow arrives on Judd Cauley’s doorstep, Gwyneth learns from the Sproules that Lady Eglantyne, the last of the Aislinn noble line in Sealey Head is on her deathbed, and the future of the majestic Aislinn House is in limbo. Lady Eglantyne’s heir, the fashionable noble woman Miss Miranda Beryl from Landringham, is summoned to Sealey Head, and as the beautiful woman arrives with her entourage of noble friends, there’s also a sense of urgency about Miss Beryl – as though she knows there is something very important about her soon to be inherited home. Young scullery girl, Emma Wood, has worked in Aislinn House all her life, and knows that there is much magic in the old mansion. Ever since her childhood, Emma has been able to open doors in the house that lead to a parallel world – a strange version of Aislinn House where the beautiful Princess Ysabo must perform meaningless task after meaningless task each day without question, or else the Pattern slips, and Ysabo’s world will crumble.

There is something magical and important about Aislinn House, with its many corridors and secret portals to another world, and somehow Ridley Dow, Miss Beryl, and the mysterious bell are all connected…

Written in Ms. McKillip’s lyrical, flawless prose, The Bell at Sealey Head is a lush fantasy novel, rife with sparkling characters, dangerous magic, mystery, and even romance. From the very first page, from the first description of the briny small town, from the first solemn toll of the mysterious bell, I was enchanted with Sealey Head and her inhabitants:

Judd Cauley stood in his father’s rooms in the Inn at Sealey Head, looking out the back window at the magnificent struggle between dark and light as the sun fought its way into the sea. Dugold Cauley seemed to be watching, too, his gray head cocked toward the battle in the sky as though he could see the great, billowing purple clouds swelled to overwhelm the sun striving against them, sending sudden shafts of light out of every ragged tear in the cloud to spill across the tide and turn the spindrift gold.

The colors! The textures! The effortless grace of the descriptions! The Bell at Sealey Head is a luscious, heady fable that intoxicates the senses with each sentence. Ms. McKillip’s writing is magic in itself, weaving a spell upon its reader – a compulsion spell, to continue reading at all costs. That’s not to say that the novel is some fast-paced knuckle-biter, because it is not. Rather, The Bell at Sealey Head is a quiet, controlled novel, revealing mystery and magic in even measure, growing its cast of characters with each chapter, and then alternating storylines between the young Judd Cauley, the lovely Gwenyth, the dashing Ridley Dow, the inquisitive Emma, and the enchanted Ysabo.

The characters themselves are gorgeously detailed and varied, completely and wholly winsome in their own different ways. The romance between the uncertain dreamer Judd Cauley and the confident Gwyneth is, as many reviewers have remarked, almost Austen-esque in its witty, lighthearted – at times comedic – manner. The Sproule siblings, with Raven’s awkward attentions and Daria’s chatterbox personality are vibrant characters in their own right. Of course, the true stage-stealers are the mysterious Mr. Ridley Dow with his fascination with magic and his flashy wardrobe, and the rebellious Princess Ysabo who questions the Pattern, even when it means danger to herself and her family.

The Bell at Sealey Head has everything I could want in a novel – a dash of romance, an ancient and enduring enchantment, compelling characters, and an irresistible element of the magical and fantastic. It is a whimsical fable with twists and turns, yes, but at its heart, it is simply a beautiful story. I loved the world of Sealey Head from start to finish, and highly recommend it.

Notable Quotes/Parts: Princess Ysabo and her tasks:

Ysabo was on top of the tower, feeding crows again. It was only bread from last night’s supper, and a few scraps of meat; the knights had eaten everything else. As always, gulls circled and wove among the crows, crying in their piercing, tormented voices as though they had eaten every fish in the sea, every plump morsel in its shell on the shore, and were on their last breaths with hunger. But they were wary of the crows and rarely snatched a mouthful. Ysabo had seen why the first time she had fed them, when she was a little girl. The gull that had caught a crust out of her bowl had been transformed instantly into a raging tumble of black feathers and beaks. The midair brawl had quickly flown itself over the sea, where, as the black knot had untangled itself into birds again, something ragged, limp, and bloody had dropped into the waves. The crows flew back to the tower, landed peacefully at Ysabo’s small, slippered feet. She had stared at them; they had looked back at her, beaks clacking, something knowing, mocking in their black eyes. SHe had dumped the rest of the scraps over their heads and fled.

But Maeve had made her go back. “It’s your duty,” her grandmother said, “from this day. We all have our duties. They must never, ever, ever be neglected. Not one. Don’t be afraid of the crows. They are wise and powerful, like the knights. Like the knights, they kill their enemies. But they would die to protect us. All they need is that we never fail in our solemn responsibilities.”

“Why?” the very small Ysabo asked. “What would happen?”

“We are sworn,” Aveline had said in her rich, husky voice, shaking her bright head, her great gray eyes seeming to see, in that moment, all the sorrows of the world in that sunny morning, “That is enough for you to know. Never ask again.”

Giveaway Details:

We are giving away TWO copies of The Bell at Sealey Head, courtesy of the publisher. The contest is open to residents of the US & Canada only, and will run until Saturday October 17 at 11:59 PM (Pacific). To enter, simply leave a comment here. We will announce the lucky winners this Sunday in our Smugglers’ Stash. Good luck!

Verdict: I adored The Bell at Sealey Head, and cannot recommend it enough. In fact – does anyone have any other Patricia McKillip recommendations for me? I have The Changeling Sea on its way.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter

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  • Leslee
    October 13, 2009 at 3:10 am

    That sounds so good!!!! I wish I had it right now to dive into!

  • Raina
    October 13, 2009 at 3:17 am

    Looks wonderful. Sign me up!

  • Kat
    October 13, 2009 at 4:14 am

    I get gooey every time I see a review of one of McKillip’s books. I think ‘intoxicating’ pretty much summed this book up for me. I could’ve eaten the words.

  • Kat
    October 13, 2009 at 4:19 am

    Also, you asked for McKillip recs but I think I already gave you mine via Twitter. I just started Shadowfae by Erica Hayes (first book, Australian author) and I’m blown away by her words–just edible. Her world isn’t like anything I’ve read before.

  • karissa
    October 13, 2009 at 5:21 am

    Looks great! I love Patricia McKillip’s writing style. I have been waiting to get this book forever πŸ™‚ Thanks for offering the contest, please sign me up!

  • RKCharron
    October 13, 2009 at 5:33 am

    Hi πŸ™‚
    I love Patricia A McKillip’s writing.
    I’ve re-re-read her Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy.
    (maybe a few more re-re’s there too).
    If you want to read some excellent books, I highly recommend those.
    All the best,

  • Cassie
    October 13, 2009 at 5:49 am

    Love Patricia McKillip, and would love to get a copy of this!

  • jillyfae
    October 13, 2009 at 6:15 am

    oooh, I love McKillip… everything I’ve read of hers has the same magical descriptive prose. Almost dreamlike, but more coherent than my dreams ever are. πŸ˜‰

    Particular favorites after Riddle-Master, if you want some more to read, are The Sorceress and the Cygnet and In the Forests of Serre, the latter of which is vaguely Russian folktale inspired, which I quite enjoyed.

    And yes, I’d love to win a copy of the new one, thank you. πŸ˜€

  • Robyn B
    October 13, 2009 at 6:22 am

    The review is excellent. I have never read any of this author’s books. Count me in, please!

  • stacy w
    October 13, 2009 at 7:16 am

    This sounds like a great book, I would love to read it! πŸ™‚

  • Amanda Makepeace
    October 13, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Sounds good! Sign me up too. πŸ˜€

  • Kimberly B.
    October 13, 2009 at 7:41 am

    I love Patricia McKillip’s writing! (And, I must confess, I love the cover art for her books, too!). A few I particularly loved were A Song for the Basilisk, Ombria in Shadow, and An Alphabet of Thorn. . .and from ages ago, before the Riddlemaster series, I think, I really enjoyed The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. So you have some delightful reading ahead of you!

  • Jessiekay
    October 13, 2009 at 8:10 am

    I love all her books!

  • MaryK
    October 13, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Sounds good. I’ve never read McKillip though I’ve seen her books many times while looking for McKinley.

  • MeganS.
    October 13, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I can’t stop looking at that lovely cover! I haven’t read any Patricia McKillip before, but this story sounds intriguing.

  • Elise
    October 13, 2009 at 8:51 am

    McKillip is always one of those authors that I know I’ve liked what I’ve read, but I haven’t actually read enough of. I should remedy that.

  • Jonnie H
    October 13, 2009 at 9:10 am

    I love the cover of this book, such beautiful artwork. Please enter me.

  • Angie
    October 13, 2009 at 9:29 am

    I went on a huge McKillip binge awhile back. Started with The Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy (which remains my favorite to this day) and never looked back. Turns out you can kind of burn out after awhile. Who knew? πŸ˜‰

    But seriously, I love her writing and THE CHANGELING SEA is very close after the Riddlemaster books, so I’m glad you’ve got that on its way. Firebird’s reissue of it also has the loveliest cover. Other favorites include THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE and THE TOWER AT STONY WOOD. I’ve kind of been holding out on all her most recent ones until I’m ready to dive in again. This one has been calling my name so I’m thrilled to see you loved it.

  • Teresa W.
    October 13, 2009 at 9:31 am

    I’d like to be included! tWarner419@aol.com

  • Beth
    October 13, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Ooh! I’d love to win this for a friend. Please enter me!

    BethsBookReviewBlog AT gmail DOT com

  • Nicole Downing
    October 13, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Love her books! Hope I win a copy!

  • Evan Jensen
    October 13, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I’d heartily recommend The Alphabet of Thorn, if you haven’t read that yet. It’s lovely stand-alone book of hers.

  • katiebabs
    October 13, 2009 at 10:06 am

    You have peaked my interest evol Smuggles pimps. πŸ˜‰

  • AnimeJune
    October 13, 2009 at 10:17 am

    WOW this sounds amazing. I’ve been lacking in good fantasy lately. Sign me up!

  • Britt, Book Habitue
    October 13, 2009 at 10:26 am

    This is such a fascinating book. I really need to read it again. And read more of her books…


  • Celia
    October 13, 2009 at 11:28 am

    No need to enter me (I have my own copy!). I wanted to say that my favorites (that I remember) are The Alphabet of Thorn and Od Magic. But McKillip has never disappointed me. Enjoy them all!

  • J.E.
    October 13, 2009 at 11:29 am

    need to get some winter reading lined up,,thx for contest..

  • danielle
    October 13, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Sign me up!

  • Tiffany M
    October 13, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    I loved The Changeling Sea. It was like an imagined fairytale come to life (as in what you imagine in your head instead of the three paragraph or more story in a book). I don’t remember much about the story, but I do remember enjoying Winter Rose. One of my friends loves the Atrix Wolfe book (I think).

    I wouldn’t mind winning a book of hers.

  • Tiffany M
    October 13, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    OH! And there was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, too!

  • Samantha R.
    October 13, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    Thanks for the contest! πŸ˜€

  • Cara Powers
    October 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Fabulous cover and I only have to comment for an entry. Awesome! πŸ˜€

  • Ren
    October 13, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Great author, I can’t wait to read this! Hope I win πŸ™‚

  • Tracie Yule
    October 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    I’d love to win a copy. The book looks really good!

  • willaful
    October 13, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is amazing. (And has a nice wee bit of romance, too.)

  • orannia
    October 13, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Thank you Thea! Oh this sounds good. And I haven’t read the author since reading The Riddle Master of Hed as a teenager..something I need to rectify ASAP!

    *races off to the library catalogue to see if The Bell at Sealey Head is listed*

  • Emily
    October 13, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    The book sounds like a lot of fun. I’m in!

  • Kris
    October 13, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I adore this author. I see others have rec’ed The Book of Atrix Wolfe and I would definitely second that. It’s firmly on my keeper shelf. I also enjoyed Winter Rose and have heard great things about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

  • bridget3420
    October 13, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    Sounds great:)

  • Dreadful Penny
    October 13, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    This review sounds awesome. I’ve always been drawn to McKillip’s books because of the covers, but never read one. This sounds like a great place to start.

  • Fionen
    October 13, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    The cover is gorgeous! I bet this book can be judged by it’s cover. πŸ˜‰ It sounds great and I’d love to read it. ^_^

  • Heather Diotte
    October 13, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    I would LOVE to win this!! Please enter me into the giveaway, thanks!!:P

  • Pam P
    October 13, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I love the whimsy of this story, count me in. A friend has told me I must read, and this sounds like a perfect one to start with. Great review.

  • Jaime W
    October 14, 2009 at 4:35 am

    This sounds great! Love the review, sign me up!!

  • Celia
    October 14, 2009 at 6:32 am

    I remember when this book came in at the library–I LOVED the cover, but just never got around to checking it out. It sounds fantastic though. Sign me up!

  • Stacie
    October 14, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Please count me in.

  • TJ Mathews
    October 14, 2009 at 8:06 am

    This sounds unlike anything I’ve read before but I’m fascinated by the blend of mystery and fantasy that you describe. I’m intrigued!

  • Rosie Carlo
    October 14, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Wow, this is definitely one I want to read!! Thanks!!

  • Carrie
    October 14, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I just discovered her! I read Ombria in Shadow just a few months ago and fell in love with her imagery. Just gorgeous, I can’t wait to read more! (And I found the book in the library, too! Free is me! πŸ˜‰ )

  • Pebble
    October 14, 2009 at 11:14 am

    I’ve only read one book of her’s a long while ago and was slightly disappointed. However, you’ve made this book sound exquisite and I’m eager to give her another try. πŸ˜€

  • Jenny N
    October 14, 2009 at 11:20 am

    This book sounds so good. I’m going to look this author up.

  • Carol M
    October 14, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I’ve never read any of Patricia McKillip’s books. I’d love to start with this one. It sounds really good.

  • Jennygirl
    October 14, 2009 at 11:59 am


    I always interested in a good fantasy book and feel a lot of them lately are the same premise. Parallel worlds are always full of mystery.
    Thanks for the contest gals!

    Plus the cover is gorgeous πŸ™‚

  • AndreaS
    October 14, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    This book sound amazing. I very much look forward to reading it. πŸ˜€

  • Marie
    October 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    I loved her ‘Riddlemaster of Hed’ trilogy, but haven’t read too many of her other novels (I love her short stories). I may have to bite the bullet and buy this one….

  • Veronica F.
    October 14, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    sounds great! count me in :mrgreen:

  • Tiah
    October 14, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Enter me please!

  • Anita Yancey
    October 15, 2009 at 6:32 am

    This sounds very interesting, and I would enjoy reading it. Please enter me. Thanks!

  • Anonymous
    October 15, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    OOh i just saw the cover and was already interested to read it! I know we shouldn’t judge a book by the cover, but you gave a review that made the book sound fun to read. This book sounds great, heck the title the Bell at Sealey Head sounds great!

  • Emily W
    October 15, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Oh please enter me! I absolutely LOVE Patricia McKillip’s books!!!!

    I LOVE the cover art as well (of all her books)!

    emily DOT wittenberg @ gmail DOT com

  • Emma
    October 15, 2009 at 8:34 pm

    I would love to read that book!

  • Lara
    October 16, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    I just found your site via one of your reviews on Goodreads and have very much enjoyed what you girls have to say! I’ve never read any of McKillip’s books before, but this sounds very intruiguing, and the cover art is indeed gorgeous! I’m definitely going to have to check out some of her other works, since everyone here is so complimentary of her stuff!

  • Lynz
    October 16, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    McKillip is a fantastic author, so I’d love to read this! Please enter me.

  • msaggie
    October 16, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    Loved your review of this new Patricia McKillip book. Please enter me in your draw!

  • Llehn
    October 16, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I’d love to play please!

  • CherylS22
    October 17, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    I’d enjoy reading this book – please count me in!

  • J.E.
    October 17, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    need some winter reading,,thx for a great contest..

  • Jennifer
    October 17, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I’ve wanted to read this ever since I heard McKillip do a reading from it at World Fantasy Con two years ago, when it was still a work in progress. My favorite book of hers (so far) is The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

  • Joanne Fisher
    October 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Sounds great

  • cheryl h
    October 17, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I just love the cover she chose. Sounds like a very interesting read.

    Please enter me. Thanks so much.

  • Wendy Gillissen
    October 18, 2009 at 4:01 am

    Ah, I wish this giveaway was open to European McKillip fans… I loved her Riddle Master series. Hm, my brother lives in the US, maybe he could enter for me? πŸ˜‰

  • The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Smugglivus 2010 Book Review: The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip
    December 29, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    […] I read this book: Although I have only recently discovered Patricia McKillip, I am a definite fan. The Bell at Sealey Head, Ms. McKillip’s 2008 release, enchanted me with its lush prose and effortless storytelling, […]

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